One of the themes that was on my mind when I wrote The Shadow and the Rose was physical beauty. The nature of beauty intrigues me, in part because as I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to look at its power more objectively.
I know that, evolutionarily speaking, we are all wired to respond to physical beauty: certain arrangements of facial features and physical builds are attractive to us because on a subconscious level they convey good breeding material. Sounds pretty crude reduced to those terms. Yet the way we respond to beauty is generally beyond logic. We go slack-jawed, tongue-tied, forgetting our dignity or our age or other considerations just to stare, to admire, to want. It’s natural, and it’s nature. It’s our nature.
I think too that, even as we grow more accustomed to seeing beautiful people in movies and on TV and in tabloids, we are all still amazed to meet someone beautiful in real life, to feel that pull. We may be jaded about celebrities and criticize the slightest flaw in their pre-Photoshop image, but for most of us it’s still not typical to be surrounded by beautiful people. And we’re also taught that it’s rude to stare. Movie stars we are allowed to stare at: up on the screen, they don’t feel our gaze. But when a gorgeous person is right there in front of us, it can make us flustered, feeling that conflict between the desire to stare and the knowledge that it’s an intrusion, a transgression even.
An episode of 30 Rock made note of the perks that life offers the beautiful (in this case Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, an undeniably gorgeous man): the traffic tickets that go unwritten, the puerile conversation forgiven. A beautiful person exerts power without even realizing it. I remember a male friend telling me that an extremely pretty girl walked into his workplace one day and asked his supervisor for a job, and even though there was no need for another employee, she was hired on the spot. That is the pull of beauty.
Many of us will never know that kind of influence. But the other side is that beautiful people sometimes feel they are not being truly seen. The actress Vivien Leigh, widely recognized as one of the most beautiful women of all time, was unimpressed by her own looks and chafed when she was praised for her beauty rather than her acting talent. That points to an interesting contradiction about physical beauty: despite its almost magical allure, it really boils down to random genetic inheritance, something that has absolutely nothing to do with our character (unless being beautiful—or lacking beauty—shapes who we become, and to a certain extent I think it can).
Almost everybody wants to be beautiful, and I’m definitely including myself in that assessment. And it’s strange to realize that being told we’re beautiful can make us feel great, even if it doesn’t change the arrangement of our facial features by a single millimeter. The truth is that being called beautiful can be shorthand for something that is actually much more meaningful than a commentary on facial structure: it can mean “You’re special to me,” or “I’m attracted to you,” or—as I have my character Tanner tell Joy, the heroine of The Shadow and the Rose—simply “I enjoy looking at you.” (Or it can mean all of the above, which is the case for Tanner.)
Maybe what we really want isn’t necessarily to change the way we look, but to change the way others look at us. We may not be able to pass through life armored by physical perfection, but to know that someone takes pleasure in looking at us, because we are us, is a magical thing in its own right.